ACLU puts 34 Colorado cities and towns on notice: Repeal your loitering laws

The Colorado chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union is throwing down the gauntlet to nearly three dozen cities and towns throughout the state, warning them to repeal laws the group says are unconstitutional.

The ACLU today sent a letter via email to 34 municipalities asking them to stop enforcing local laws that make it a crime to “loiter for the purpose of begging”— and to repeal those laws.

This public chin-checking of local governments by the group comes after some recent court wins and embarrassing settlements.

In May, the ACLU smacked down Colorado Springs for running debtors’ prisons. The city admitted wrongdoing and coughed up at least $100,000 to victims after the ACLU called the city out for improperly jailing people who were too poor to pay fines.

Last October, the group won a court battle against Grand Junction when a federal judge struck down the city’s panhandling ordinance.

Now the ACLU has identified 34 other municipalities it says have loitering-for-the-purpose-of-begging ordinances that are broader than the ill-fated one in Grand Junction.

“Not only do these anti-begging ordinances violate the constitutional rights of people experiencing homelessness, but they are costly to enforce and serve to exacerbate problems associated with extreme poverty,” said ACLU of Colorado legal director Mark Silverstein in a statement.

Harassing, ticketing, or arresting poor people just because they asked for help is “inhumane, counterproductive, and— in many cases— illegal,” he said.

Already, at least one municipality in question is taking a look at repealing its own ordinance.

“We plan to be addressing that at the next city council meeting,” said Jim Thorsen, city manager for Cherry Hills Village, which is one of the municipalities cited by the ACLU. 

Thorsen told The Colorado Independent that while the ordinance is on the books there, it took the city a while to find, and he doesn’t believe it has been enforced once in the past four years.

Asked if the municipality would be open to getting rid of the ordinance, he said, “Oh, definitely.” 

Homelessness and transience issues have increasingly become topics of concern for local governments from the military-heavy suburban sprawl of Colorado Springs to the funky college town of Boulder.

As these municipalities attempt to deal with the issue, the ACLU has been keeping watch to make sure local governments are safeguarding the constitutional rights of those targeted.

The ACLU found one homeless victim who had been improperly jailed in Colorado Springs because he couldn’t pay fines. As a result of the ACLU’s lawsuit, the city paid the man, known locally as Q-Tip, at least $11,000.

The group says it has seen an increase in recent years of enforcement that essentially criminalizes homelessness. Its letter to the 34 municipalities it says are violating the law held something of a warning: “The ACLU of Colorado has committed significant resources to challenging those laws through litigation, legal advocacy, and community mobilization.”

The local governments the ACLU put on notice include Avon, Bennett, Brighton, Buena Vista, Carbondale, Cherry Hills Village, Cortez, Crested Butte, Cripple Creek, Del Norte, Dillon, Eaton, Englewood, Firestone, Garden City, Gilcrest, Green Mountain Falls, Johnstown, La Junta, Leadville, Lochbuie, Mead, Meeker, Milliken, Minturn, Nederland, Oak Creek, Platteville, Rifle, Rocky Ford, Salida, San Luis, Severance, and Timnath.

Photo by Steven Depolo for Creative Commons on Flickr